Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

published 2011 chapter 2

At one point, I found myself…lingering in front of a small canvas, a domestic interior, entitled The Studio. The colours of this picture were particularly striking against the scarlet damask of the wall. The painting depicted an elegant lady in a black frock. She was standing in what appeared to be an attic room, an easel in the background the only suggestion that this loft belonged to an artist. A shaft of light fell from a skylight window, illuminating the woman’s figure. Her hat was trimmed with a short, diaphanous veil. In one hand, she held a little bag of seed, which she was feeding to a canary in a cage. Although she seemed to be a guest in the house, one formed the impression – simply from the way that she fed the bird – that she was a frequent visitor. The expression on her face was intriguing: she looked so placid and content, lost in thought, perhaps – even – in love. Of course, I would like to be able to say that, upon first viewing, I was seized by the genius in the conception and execution of this painting, The Studio.

observations: A long, clever, solid book, one to get lost in: it tells the story of a Victorian spinster and her relationship with the family of the artist Ned Gillespie – Harriet Baxter moves to Glasgow and makes friends with his wife, his children, his mother-in-law and his sister, and even starts advising him about his art. A shocking event disrupts this already-slightly-uncomfortable situation, and then everything goes very wrong indeed. The story is Miss Baxter’s memoirs, and she is also keeping us up-to-date with what happens as she writes her story, in 1933. It doesn’t do to spoiler too much: any experienced reader can spot an unreliable narrator a mile off, and although the events take slightly unexpected turns, the long-term story isn’t a huge surprise to crime fiction fans. But still, it is extremely cleverly written, very funny, and lingers in the mind, as you wonder if there were further implications about other, casually mentioned, incidents.

Miss Baxter has a very distinct and enjoyable voice, and though sometimes you think the book could have been a good 100 pages shorter, time spent in her company is not wasted. She is something like the protagonist of Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. A lot of people loved Harris’s first novel, The Observations. I prefer this one by a long way.

Links on the blog: The wonderful Fiona in Being Emily was an art student in Glasgow.

The picture is Woman with a Birdcage by Joszef Rippl-Ronai, from The Athenaeum website.


  1. Moira - When it's well done, the unreliable narrator can be such an effective plot point/strategy. And it allows the author some interesting latitude for all sorts of plot twists and surprises. Thanks for sharing this with us - you're quite right that a well-done Victorian melodrama can be exactly the right sort of book to lose oneself in on a cold, dark winter day...


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